Things you never knew about how we map the world

Simon Garfield specialises in books about aspects of history that you don’t usually see in books. For example, I own his book Just My Type about the evolution of different printing fonts which is a lot more interesting than you might imagine, and which introduces you to the whole concept of kerning amongst other things. I reviewed his book To the Letter here which is about the history of letter writing.

In On the Map the author tells the history of maps in an easy to read way that is suitable for the general reader. It’s a book that tells the larger picture about the development of cartography but which also includes interesting, shorter chapters about unusual or quirky aspects of mapping. I read this book in a paper format and would definitely recommend this as there are plenty of illustrations which I think would be difficult to read on a Kindle.

The main story talks about the earliest maps and how they were drawn, including how the map makers overcame the difficulty of representing a three dimensional globe on a flat surface, although he later discusses the making of globes. We see how maps reflected how people thought about the world, what they thought was important and what they actually knew about the areas beyond Europe (the book mostly talks about maps in Western Europe). There are some great examples of very beautiful maps and also some interesting portrayals of foreign lands and what might be there.

The book explains what makes a map collectable and also how older maps are forged. There is also an interesting section about stolen maps. There are stories about mysterious mountain ranges in Africa and obscure islands which don’t exist in real life but are stubbornly represented on maps for many years after the truth is known. The Ordnance Survey gets a section to itself as we talk about surveying and there is an interesting story about how surveying in India was racist and how names were changed to meet the requirements of the map makers. I enjoyed learning about how the A to Z maps came about, the advantages and otherwise of sat navs, how maps are used in epidemiology and how the Muppets used maps to travel.

This was a highly entertaining book and one of those where you really want to share snippets with other people because they are quirky or interesting. If you want to know more about map making or some aspect of it then you will need to read something more specialised but if, like me, you just have a general interest I think that you will find this book fascinating.

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